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Get the Facts on Travel Health Before Your Family's Vacation

03/07/2014 10:48 EST | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

This winter has really been urging every one of us to seriously consider packing up and heading out to somewhere warm with family. To truly enjoy our vacation, you and your family need to stay healthy during the trip. Most of us, however, are not as well aware or informed as we should be, according to a recent survey by Ipsos Reid of over 1,100 Canadians.

The survey tested our knowledge about preventing traveller's diarrhea, a condition that can affect half of us visiting Mexico, Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Latin America, even Eastern and Southern Europe which are common winter destinations. And it can be way more than a minor inconvenience, as one in five of those who contract this illness can be confined in bed for a day and have symptoms up to five days. That's sure going to ruin the holidays for you and your family.

Let's see if you can separate the travel myths from facts:

- True or False? Drinking bottled water is always safe...

False! 84 per cent of survey respondents made the same mistake in believing this is true. Drinking bottled water is generally recommended to cut the risk of consuming bacteria but you have to make sure the bottle is factory-sealed and it is not mixed with ice from an unknown source.

- True or False? Contracting a travel illness such as travellers' diarrhea is only a minor inconvenience...

This is false. Travellers' diarrhea is the most common illness affecting Canadian travellers in areas like Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Its symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the severe symptoms can include fever, vomiting, and stools with blood or mucus, which can lead to mild to severe dehydration. Also, having the illness can be costly -- both financially and experientially, by missing out on quality vacation time with your family and friends.

- True or False? Food served at all-inclusive resorts is always "safe"...

The survey revealed 59 per cent of respondents were correct in believing this is false. We should all avoid food from street vendors when travelling. Even at the resorts, the general rule of thumb is still "cook it, boil it, peel it or leave it". We should avoid salads, raw or undercooked meat or fish, including shellfish. Food should be well-cooked and served hot. Bacteria can multiply quickly when food is left at room temperature for several hours.

- True or False? If you were born in a foreign country, you're immune to travellers' diarrhea when you return to the country to visit friends and relatives...

False again. Nearly one-in-five (19 per cent) wrongly believe that Canadians of foreign descent are immune to travellers' diarrhea when visiting their country of origin to visit friends or relatives. We lose our immunity to the bacteria that can cause travellers' diarrhea very quickly once we move away, especially if you have been away for a while.

- True or False? The risk of contracting travellers' diarrhea is the same if you visit either Mexico or Africa.

It's true, and only half of the survey respondents knew this. Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are all considered to be high-risk destinations.

Sounds complicated? It's not. Simple precautions can go a long way for you and your family. There is now even a drinkable vaccine to give you extra protection from travellers' diarrhea, called Dukoral. It's taken two weeks before you travel, and provides protection for up to three months. You can get it from your pharmacist without a prescription anywhere in Canada, except in Quebec.

Before you head out this winter break, make sure talk to your pharmacist, doctor or travel expert about how to protect yourself and your family from travellers' diarrhea and other infectious diseases.

Tips for Preparing a Travel Health Kit

In addition to speaking with a pharmacist, doctor or travel expert before you depart, I find that many patients ask what to bring on their vacations to ensure they have a healthy trip. Health Canada has suggested a list of items that you should carry along. Check them out here.